CN Sep. 10, 2015

So, it’s sort of quasi-official. We’re in for the largest property tax increase in modern Chicago history. Along with new fees for garbage collection and new taxes on all kinds of other activities. We’ll know officially in a couple of weeks, but news reports about the plan haven’t been denied by the Mayor. Sun-Times political reporter Natasha Korecki says there’s some validity to the criticism that Chicago’s property taxes should have been raised gradually over the years.

“The dirty little secret about property taxes in Chicago is that they are pretty low and they’ve been artificially low for a long time,” she tells us. “If you look at the property taxes out in the suburbs, I mean, they pale in comparison. Of course schools are much stronger in the suburbs as well. So yes, it’s the same thing, politicians just kicking the can down the road and if they had done it gradually the increase wouldn’t be this (dramatic).”

“It’s more than nickel and diming this time around,” asserts the Tribune’s City Hall reporter Bill Ruthhart, talking about the calculus the Emanuel administration must use in advancing such a big increase. “So at what point does that property tax increase – yeah, maybe it’s still lower in the suburbs, but the stuff starts to add up and the math is done. Some people pay for private school because they want to stay in the City. The calculus starts to change. I think that’s part of what the City Hall is trying to figure out right now is how high can they raise the property taxes without making that gap too small, and the same goes for businesses downtown, office rent spaces and all that and the impact it has on that market.”

Mayor Emanuel called three large public meetings to talk about the budget, and they really didn’t go all that well. Protesters calling for a re-opened Dyett High School dominated the hearings and at one point rushed the stage, ending the second meeting.

“I don’t think he was surprised there was going to be some venom at these things,” says Ruthhart. “It built to the point where people were so angry they literally decided to step on stage and shut the meeting down. I don’t think he expected that. But he’s been protested for much of his first term ever since he closed schools. When he goes out they put out the notice right before he goes somewhere so protesters can’t show up, and this has long been a concern of his. But I do think the surprise was that it ratcheted up to the point where it did, and part of the reason it did is because he sat on stage and did not answer peoples’ questions when they were directly asking him questions. He just sat there and refused to answer and it just made people angrier than they already were.”

“He very clearly did not want to leave the stage because he knew the narrative of that,” Ruthhart continues. “He lost control of his meeting and finally a security detail said, “Look man, you’ve got to go.” And even when he was backstage he was trying to find a way to come back out. But the choices for him and his security detail at that point were two. It was either forcibly remove people at the meeting so they could put him back on stage or remove him from the situation, so they had to take the better of those two choices.”

Amid loud protests from hunger strikers, the Mayor and newly-appointed CPS CEO Forrest Claypool met with the protesters demanding a re-opened, CPS-run technology high school at Dyett, and announced two days later that they had agreed with the demand. They would re-open Dyett as a CPS-run school, almost as the protesters from KOCO had demanded, But KOCO would not be a part of the new school.  The hunger strike still continues. But as Ruthhart explains, the Mayor may have won this round.

“To the general public who has not been following every twist and turn of the Dyett hunger strike they know that these people want their school reopened. And Rahm Emanuel and Forrest Claypool came up with a solution to reopen their school. Now, when you’re talking about the nuance of it’s not a green technology high school that the Dyett people wanted in the exact same form, well that’s a much more nuanced argument that does not fit into 140 characters on Twitter. It does not fit into a 30-second sound byte on the evening news, and that’s where the Emanuel administration got the upper hand. Here’s a plan to reopen the school. This is what these people wanted, and to the average Joe taxpayer sitting at home – well they gave them the school back. What more do they want? But, the issue is way more nuanced than that to these protesters.”

Korecki says there’s similar, though unrelated, media battle going on with the Governor, who is taking heat from the months-long budget stalemate.

“The Democrats are blaming this big looming shutdown on Bruce Rauner,” she explains. “So Rauner signs education funding, schools are open. Okay – he took that issue out. Then he went to court and made sure that state workers all got their paychecks and sent these e-mails out saying, ‘You’re all going to get paid. I’m going to make sure that you get paid’ when really you know he’s the one who is putting his foot down saying ‘I’m not going to approve it.’ He vetoed the budget, right? So again, to the average person, well schools are open. State workers are paid. Of course,” she adds, ” there’s a lot of people suffering right now.”

We ask whether the tactic is working. Has Rauner bought enough time to begin winning a war of attrition against the Democrats?

“What can Rauner really point to and say this is what I did for you?” Korecki asks.” He can’t point to anything. Everything he’s tried to float in the legislature has been killed. It has not been called. Mike Madigan has been controlling everything there. He’s saying he wants a property tax freeze with all these caveats. So it’s going to be a very interesting election coming forward with all the State Rep races, but I can’t say that you point to Madigan or Rauner and say either are winning right now.”

Bill Ruthhart gets the last word. Why haven’t Aldermen and State Legislators been able to deal with these looming pension deficits and funding holes on a regular, predictable basis? “Well'” he says, “If we’ve learned anything about politics in Springfield and Chicago, these guys don’t ever want to do anything until they have to.”


About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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